Matthew Turner shares five (ok, six) of his favorite reads from Japanese authorsLiterature
Editor's Note: Matthew Turner, author of Sweden, the story of Vietnam War deserters who hid in Japan, details a few of his favorite titles coming out of the country right now. So, if you're on the hunt for some new books to add to your "must-read" list, look no further. Additionally, you can grab your copy of Sweden from our online store.
Territory of Light
Translated by Geraldine Harcourt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2019)
More than half a century before autofiction appeared in the West, a similar genre of literature was popular in Japan. The shishōsetsu, or I-novel, emerged in the 1900s as a response by Japanese writers to naturalism, a concept introduced to Japan in the Meiji period. As with autofiction, I-novels were written in the first person, were uncompromisingly realistic and incorporated events from the author's own life.
Yūko Tsushima's Territory of Light bears many of the hallmarks of an I-novel. Mirroring the author's life, the unnamed protagonist is a single woman raising a daughter in Tokyo. The novel follows her over the course of a year after separating from her husband, beginning with her moving into a light-filled apartment. At times the challenges of life as a solo mother in Japan get the better of her, and she shows signs of losing touch with reality. But amidst the gloom there are moments of humor, often centered on the escapades of the two-year-old daughter. There are also moments of sheer beauty.
Territory of Light was originally published in 12 self-contained parts in the Japanese monthly literary magazine Gunzo between 1978 and 1979. But there is a timeless quality to the work, and it never feels dated. It left a lasting impression on me, like an after-image.
Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
Hideo Yokoyama worked as a journalist for 12 years before turning his hand to writing fiction. His sixth novel, Six Four, a police procedural with a heavy emphasis on the inner workings of the Japanese police force, was his first to be published in English in 2016. Seventeen predates it by almost a decade, but was only published in English in late 2018.
Yokoyama is billed as a mystery or thriller writer, but both these novels are more workplace dramas than mysteries or thrillers. Both deal with infighting and power struggles within large organizations and the toll they take on the individuals caught up in them.
In Seventeen, the organization in question is a regional newspaper dealing with a story of unprecedented proportions. The August 1985 crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, in which a Boeing 747 en route from Tokyo to Osaka suffered rapid decompression and slammed into a mountain in Gunma Prefecture resulting in the deaths of 520 passengers and crew, remains the deadliest single-aircraft accident in aviation history. This aspect of the novel gave it added appeal for me, as I was living in Japan when this accident occurred.
Just as the real-life rescue operation was hampered by rivalries between Japanese and American forces, the effort to uncover and report on the cause of the accident portrayed in Seventeen is hindered by rivalries within the fictional newspaper. The protagonist, a reporter who is put in charge of the team working on the story, grows increasingly frustrated as the investigation goes on.
Yokoyama himself covered the crash of JAL Flight 123 as a journalist, and much of the novel is based on his own experience.
Translated by Giles Murray
Minotaur Books (2018)
While working as an engineer, Keigo Higashino published his first novel in 1985, and has since grown to become one of Japan's most successful mystery writers. He has published more than 50 novels, 20 of which have been turned into movies.
Like The Devotion of Suspect X, the first of his novels to be published in English, Newcomer is set in Tokyo's shitamachi, the lower-lying part of the city that was formerly home to merchants and artisans. Today, family-run stores and small businesses still line the often-narrow streets and traditional cultural forms are still maintained. Much of the action in Newcomer is confined to a single shopping street in the Nihonbashi district.
Detective Kaga, the sharp-witted and tenacious protagonist, is investigating the death of a woman who recently moved into the area. Each of the nine parts sees him interact with a different family or small business as he tries to eliminate potential suspects from the inquiry, giving us fascinating insights into the lives of the area's residents, which constitute mini-dramas within the main drama. As usual with Higashino's novels, solving the mystery is like working out the solution to an intricately constructed puzzle.
Translated by Ralph McCarthy
Penguin Books (2006)
Though not for the squeamish, this is among my favorite books by a Japanese author. It takes readers behind Tokyo's glittering façade and offers them a glimpse of the real city, warts and all. Many of the scenes are set in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo's main entertainment districts and an area I have vivid memories of from my first trip to Japan as a 20-something in the 1980s.
Kenji, an English-speaking nightlife guide, specializes in introducing foreign visitors to the seedier side of life in the Japanese capital. Just before the new year, he is hired by Frank, an American tourist, to give him a guided tour of Tokyo over three nights. Kenji quickly senses that something is not right with Frank.
Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose. As time goes by, Kenji begins to suspect that his client is no ordinary tourist, and in fact may be a psychotic murderer.
What seems on the face of it to be a simple horror story is actually a biting critique of Japanese society and in particular the loneliness, isolation and lack of sense-of-purpose that afflict its young people. It can also be read as a commentary on U.S.-Japan relations.
Japan on Foot
Any book in English about walking in Japan will inevitably draw comparisons with the writing of Alan Booth. Booth, an Englishman who moved to Japan in 1970 to study Noh theater, wrote two fascinating accounts of his travels on foot through the country, one of which, The Roads to Sata, is regarded as a classic.
As is the case with that work, Mary King's Japan on Foot describes a hike from one end of Japan to the other. But there are notable differences between the two. King took a longer, more serpentine route. And whereas Booth walked solo, King was accompanied by her partner of 10 years, Etsuko Shimabukuro, though by the end of the 15 month journey the relationship had buckled under the strain. King also extended her journey beyond Japan's four main islands to include Shimabukuro's home prefecture of Okinawa. Okinawa is the setting for one of the many intriguing episodes in the book, a meeting with a man who claims to have found a lost civilization off the coast of the island of Yonaguni.
Both authors take the reader off the beaten path and show them aspects of Japan that are seldom seen or reported on. Many of the challenges King came up against, from encounters with bears, stray dogs and reckless drivers to nagging injuries and extremes in weather, were also faced by Booth. But perhaps the most important thing the two authors have in common, and the thing that makes these two books special, is their fascination with and openness to Japan's history, culture and above all its people.
Convenience Store Woman
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Grove Press (2018)
The last few years have been golden ones for Japanese women writers. None more so than 2019, when women took both of Japan's major literary awards, the Akutagawa Prize and the Naoki Prize. In fact, all six nominees for the Naoki Prize were women.
Sayaka Murata won the 2016 Akutagawa Prize for Convenience Store Woman. Its protagonist is Keiko, a 36-year-old part-time store clerk. Bullied, friendless and prone to unpredictable and sometimes violent behavior as a child, Keiko turns herself around at the age of 18 when she lands a job at her local Smile Mart convenience store. Not only does she find comfort in the rigid rules and routines of the workplace, but she excels, becoming a model employee. But when her family suggests to her that it's time to move on and start a family, Keiko's psychotic streak shows signs of reappearing.
Murata worked at a convenience store three times a week as part of her preparation for writing this darkly humorous novel, and her dedication shows in the detailed descriptions of the work environment, even down to the particular sounds of the barcode scanners and door chimes.